It takes about five minutes on Main Street to spot a solvent dealer.
The tall, dour man with the black backpack has tucked himself, along with two young sniffers, between the Bell Hotel and the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority's new parkade. In full view of motorists on Main Street, a couple of small bottles of clear liquid change hands. Cash, likely $5, also changes hands.
When two Downtown Watch outreach officers stride toward him, the seller grabs his backpack, lobs a few F-bombs at the red shirts and sprints north up Main Street, beyond where the watch is empowered to patrol.
But he's back selling almost immediately.
A few days later, he is spotted cruising up Main Street on his bike, stopping to sell sniff to homeless people in the park on Higgins Avenue, even lining up for soup at the Lighthouse Mission, where he's been told he's not welcome.
It's remarkably easy to get solvents on the street, either from a dealer or from a store.
"You go to Canadian Tire in Garden City," solvent user Benny Meeseewaypetung says gleefully. Just take the No. 18 bus, he adds.
More commonly, though, a dealer doles out sniff on street corners. A can of lacquer thinner that sells for $7 or $8 could earn a street seller $60 or $70 once it's portioned out into Chubby pop bottles.
Sniffing or selling solvents is not technically illegal under the federal Criminal Code, and provincial laws are hazy.
The worst that can happen is a ticket and a fine under the province's Public Health Act, which allows police to seize solvents meant for inhaling. The act also prohibits the repackaging of solvents -- pouring lacquer thinner into chubbies, for example. That "repackaging" rule is the one police use most often to crack down on street-level sniff vendors.
The province has another batch of laws that tries to get at sniffers through the back door, such as an act that allows provincial staff to shut down sniff houses, for example.
Winnipeg police Patrol Sgt. Don Murray, who works in the downtown's community support unit, says there's not really a problem with inner-city corner stores selling sniff, as they have been known to sell mouthwash to addicts.
Instead, the sniff sellers are individuals on the street. In the last year, police have handed out two tickets to street-level sniff dealers using the Public Health Act. One, a man who lives in East Kildonan, was selling sniff in front of the Siloam Mission. Another was caught selling just off Main Street.
A magistrate sets the fine, which is normally small. Other times, the "repackaging" infraction is dropped as part of a plea deal on other charges.
Staff at the Downtown Watch's outreach program say it's normally fellow addicts who sell solvents to sniffers. The sellers tend to be slightly more stable, perhaps alcoholics who have a place to live or solvent users who aren't quite as chronic.
Lighthouse Mission director Sean Goulet has banned people from his soup line for selling sniff or making deals inside. He's even sought restraining orders against them.
But the small number of sellers are relentless. They even wait until Goulet's car isn't parked out back to woo addicts.
It's not illegal to sniff or sell sniff under the federal Criminal Code,
at least not explicitly.
Meanwhile, a bevy of laws touching on solvents are scattered in several provincial acts.
It is flat-out illegal for minors to sniff a long list of substances, including glues, gas, polish removers, thinning agents and dyes containing toluene or acetone. Under the Minors Intoxicating Substances Control Act, it's also illegal for a store owner or anyone else to sell those substances to young people if there's a reasonable chance the teen will use the product to get high. The penalty for selling sniff to a minor can be as hefty as a $10,000 fine and at least a week in jail. Manitoba created the act in 2004 because the province plays a role in child welfare. It can't write a similar act for adults, because that's the purview of the Criminal Code.
The Public Health Act is a bit muddy. It gives inspectors or peace officers the right to seize glues, adhesives, cements, cleaning solvents and thinning agents if they believe a person is either going to use them to get high or sell them to someone else to get high. And, the act makes it illegal to repackage solvents for use as inhalants. Police can bring the seized items in front of a magistrate, who may levy a fine. The "repackaging" rule is the one police use most often. It's unclear if anyone has ever been ticketed under the Public Health Act for sniffing.
The Safer Communities and Neighbourhoods Act allows the province to use the civil justice system to shut down a sniff house or a store where solvents are sold to addicts. So far, 30 properties have been closed down under the legislation.
Manitoba's Liquor Control Act doesn't cover sniff, but it does cover "non-potable" alcohol such as hairspray and Lysol, making it illegal to buy or sell such items for use as intoxicants. Penalties include fines and jail time. The act was toughened in the early 1990s to crack down on those kinds of substances after a local committee of activists raised hell about the problem of non-beverage alcohol in the inner city. At least one corner store in the core area was charged for selling non-potable alcohol in recent years.